On February 1, the Delhi High Court, while hearing a 2015 suo motu public interest litigation pertaining to air pollution in Delhi, expressed concern over the reduction in forest cover in the national capital. The Division Bench of Chief Justice Satish Chandra Sharma and Justice Subramonium Prasad said that Delhi is fast losing its forest cover and injustice is being done to nature. The Bench also asked Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati to personally look into the matter and also sought information from her about the status of pending cases in the Supreme Court on similar issues.
“This is a case highlighting that the forest cover in Delhi is reducing drastically and buildings are being constructed around the central ridge area and that encroachments around Asola sanctuary are not removed. Whether the matter pending in the apex court has taken care of the forest cover of Delhi too?” the Court asked the ASG.
The ASG said that the report in the matter before the apex court will apply to the whole country and is not specific to any state, even though the matter arose out of West Bengal. “There has been no hearing in the matter for some time,” the ASG said. The Court requested the ASG to look into the matter and said that Delhi is losing forest cover like anything. “We are keeping the matter after four weeks. The amicus has done a great job, and he has brought all minute details to our notice. We feel that injustice is being done to nature. Mountains, rivers and forests have to be saved for the coming generations.”
The Court asked the authorities to explain the reason for defiance of its earlier orders passed in the matter and listed it for hearing on March 13. It further asked the centre, the Delhi government, the forest department and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) to explain in an affidavit how a multi-storeyed building in the Ridge area got permission for the construction of flats.
The amicus curiae, Senior Advocate Kailash Vasdev, appointed in the matter, took the Court through photographs of Delhi, which highlighted the loss of forest cover, especially in areas around Asola Bhati sanctuary, the airport and the president’s house. He also stated that the said areas are being surrounded by slums and pointed out that the Yamuna river bank “today is one huge unplanned slum”.
Vasdev further said that permission should not have been given to construct buildings in areas that were protected. He referred to an advertisement regarding the sale of flats in Chhatarpur and said: “It is under the Ridge; you can’t build… there is a prohibition.”
“I think a notice should be issued to MCD to explain this. This whole area used to be a forest area,” he added. “This is the airport area, the whole Dwarka belt, please see what’s being done along river Yamuna, these are all total illegal colonies which have come up. They are saying 20% green cover is still there. Please show me. Please see Ghaziabad and NCR area. If this is how this is going to be developed, then there will be nothing which we will give to our future generations except pollution and illness,” he argued.
The national capital has lost forest cover whereas most other states and Union territories have shown an increase in overall forest cover. Last year in January, the Forest Survey of India report showed that Delhi has lost 0.44 sq km of forest cover since 2019. The report also showed that while Delhi recorded a slight decrease of 0.44 sq km in its forest cover, it recorded an increase of 18 sq km in its total tree cover. This, the forest department said, is due to large-scale plantation drives.
The capital recorded an increase in its green cover by 17.6 sq km—with 342 sq km (23.06%) of Delhi’s total geographical area of 1,483 sq km now under green cover—according to India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021. A senior official of the forest department said that despite a drop in the total forest cover, Delhi still had “quality” forest cover. “We have actually seen an increase in moderately dense forests, which are denser than open forests. There has been a slight reduction only in open forests. But this means the quality of our denser forests has increased,” said the official, attributing annual tree plantation drives to an increase in Delhi’s overall tree cover.
A very dense forest is one with a canopy density of 70% or more, moderately dense forests have a canopy density between 40% and 70%, while open forests have a canopy density between 10% and 40%. Delhi’s green cover as per the 2019 report was 324.4 sq km (21.88% of the total geographical area), while it was 305 sq km (20.6%) as per the 2017 version of the biennial report.
According to data from ISFR 2021, Delhi’s very dense forest has remained constant at 6.72 sq km in the last two years. However, there has been an increase in the moderately dense forest, increasing from 56.42 sq km in 2019 to 56.60 sq km. At the same time, there has been a reduction in open forest area from 132.30 sq km in 2019 to 131.68 sq km in 2021—a reduction of 0.62 sq km. Delhi now has 147 sq km of its total area under tree cover, an increase of 13.9% from 129 sq km in 2019.
To calculate green cover, Delhi’s total area under tree cover and forest cover categories is combined, both of which exclude shrubs and infant saplings. These are generally not reflected in satellite imagery, which requires saplings to be around 6-8 feet tall and have dense foliage.
Forest cover is the total geographical area declared as forest by the government. As of 2021, the total forest cover in India is 80.9 million hectares, which is 24.62% of the total geographical area of the country. There is a 1,540 sq km increase in forest cover over 2019. Madhya Pradesh has the highest forest cover as per the area, followed by Arunachal Pradesh. Mizoram has the highest forest cover in terms of percentage of total geographical area.
The Ministry of the Environment, Forest and Climate Change used the mid resolution satellite data on LISS-III data from Indian remote sensing satellites. Union Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupendra Yadav had released the Indian forest survey report 2021-22 on January 13, 2022. The maximum increase in forest cover was witnessed in Andhra Pradesh (647 sq km), followed by Telangana (632 sq km) and Odisha (537 sq km). Increase in forest cover has been observed in open forest followed by very dense forest. The top three states showing an increase in forest cover are Andhra Pradesh (647 sq km), followed by Telangana (632 sq km) and Odisha (537 sq km).
Area wise, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover in the country, followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra. In terms of forest cover as percentage of total geographical area, the top five states are Mizoram (84.53%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.33%), Meghalaya (76.00%), Manipur (74.34%) and Nagaland (73.90%).
Seventeen states/UTs have above 33% of the total geographical area under forest cover. Out of these states and UTs, five states/UTs, namely Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya, have more than 75% forest cover while 12 states/UTs, namely Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Goa, Kerala, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Dadra & Nagar Haveli, Daman & Diu, Assam and Odisha, have forest cover between 33% and 75%.
—By Adarsh Kumar and India Legal Bureau